Our Chambongs, Ourselves

Invading the world of the high-rollers to bring the good stuff back to the people.

September 27, 2017 ‚óŹ 4 min read

By Priya Krishna | Collage ChefsFeed

“I just don’t think luxury is what people want right now.”   

So says Ariel Arce, owner of Air’s Champagne Parlor in New York. “After a long day at work, I don’t want to sit down for a four-hour meal that costs 500 bucks. It is counterintuitive and elitist. I want to create places that people actually want to go to — that are accessible, but serve high-quality products.”  

Her view stands in direct contrast to much of today’s fine dining world, where a 400 percent markup on a glass of wine is average; as is paying twenty dollars for a small appetizer, or twenty-five for a cocktail. As rents get steeper and restaurant culture gets more competitive, the already-expensive venture of dining out is only becoming pricier.     

Except, that is, in the curious case of Champagne. What was once a blinged out, ultra-exclusive affair has experienced an interesting second coming. Places like Air’s, The Riddler in San Francisco, Extra Brut in St. Louis, and Pops for Champagne in Chicago are casual and affordable, serving Champagnes and sparkling wines that you can drink every day, in bars that you can stroll into on any given evening.  

Back in the ’90s, bars with robust Champagne menus adhered to a very specific vibe. As Pelka puts it, “They were lounge-y and scene-y, for when you were in the mood for bottle service. I think of a scene from Sex and The City with a super snobby host, and if your name wasn’t on the list and your outfit wasn’t right, you were not getting in.”  

No longer. When Sara Verhey began overseeing her parents’ iconic Chicago bar, Pops for Champagne, she made it a point to rebrand the place to be more low-key. She moved the location downtown, added more affordable options, and dressed her waiters in T-shirts. “It was all part of creating that open, vibrant, airy atmosphere that would appeal to more people,” she says.  

Verhey, like her cross-country counterparts, serves a new generation of diners “interested in spending money on luxury, but not interested in the stuffiness associated with luxury,” like the tuxedos and the white tablecloths. These guests want to spend, but not blow their hard-earned cash. And more so than opulence, they are eager for innovation.  

“They want more unique offerings and new adventures that they haven’t tried,” says Whitney VinZant, owner of Extra Brut in St. Louis. “You saw that with bourbon and the rise of craft beer, and now it’s happening in sparkling wine.” Instead of bottle service and crystal buckets, they want comfy chairs, cute, illustrated menus, no reservations, and lowbrow snacks. At Air’s, The Riddler, and Extra Brut, the food menu includes French fries, popcorn, and tater tots. The Riddler offers a chambong for drinking your wine, and a pour called The Joan, which goes all the way to the rim of the glass (named after a friend of a friend of owner Jen Pelka’s, who was a “floozy mom” — her words).  

Champagne’s reputation as a luxurious, exclusive product doesn't come from just anywhere. Real Champagne — sparkling wine made with grapes from the small Champagne region of France — is rare. “There is very little supply and very high demand, and there is a tremendous amount that goes into the viticulture,” Pelka says. “It is one of the most challenging wine growing regions.” That meticulous production method and limited supply, combined with clever, opulence-focused marketing on the part of large brands like Moët & Chandon or Dom Perignon, helped to establish it as the luxury beverage in America, meant only for special occasions and wealthy individuals. Meanwhile, in Europe, “Champagne is consumed as part of a typical weekday lunch,” says Whitney VinZant, owner of Extra Brut in St. Louis.  

The goal of these second-wave Champagne bars, then, is to provide an accessible entry point. Champagne for The People. That means offering a menu that includes not just champagne, but a global selection of sparkling wines — a category that has exploded over the past few years, thanks to higher demand by mainstream restaurants across the country.  

Arce wants to give guests the opportunity to work their way up to Champagne (which usually starts in the $90-$100 range). Because both the supply and demand have gone up, prices of sparkling wine are more affordable than they have ever been, allowing her to sell bottles at Air’s for as low as thirty dollars. “It is a lot to ask a person to spend the money that Champagne costs, so you start with sparkling wine, and you educate yourself. Then, when you taste Champagne, it becomes this eye-opening experience.”  

Champagne bars aren’t alone in their charge to make the high-end approachable. Just last year, alleged No. 1 restaurant in the world Eleven Madison Park opened Made Nice, a quick-service spot serving more casual versions of its signature fine dining offerings, like a confit pork bowl inspired by a suckling pig dish, or a milk and honey soft serve, which is a take on an ice cream and honey brittle-based dessert. Places like Sugarfish in Los Angeles and Sushi on Jones in New York take the high-end concept of omakase and bring it down to 30-dollar or 50-dollar price points, in a much more relaxed setting. What was once so exclusive is now readily available to the masses.  

A fundamental shift has taken place. This generation’s perception of what defines a great dining experience has finally become divorced from those elements that used to define it: a hefty price tag, imported glassware, stiff service. “The way we have a good time is much more casual,” explains Pelka. “Back in the day, you would get off work, dress up, and go to Le Cirque. Now, we want to go below 14th Street to a place that is cool and loud and fun, where you don’t have to whisper and there aren’t white tablecloths everywhere. That’s just where the scene is now.”